Our friend George Whitman died Wednesday.
The legendary, incredibly hospitable, and sometimes famously irascible proprietor of the latest incarnation of the Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company was 98. We've shared our love of the bookstore here on Paris Play twice before.
In these latter years, George had turned over the operations of the store to his supremely competent, beautiful, and equally hospitable daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, who expands on her father's gifts by running the bookstore as a business, too, which wasn't really in George's nature.
Here's what we mean: Richard had the pleasure of being George's guest at his "Tumbleweed Hotel," a few times during the eighties, which sometimes entailed running the cash box while George stepped out. George was a wonderful, trusting soul, but Richard suspects that many of the other vagabonds who also found themselves in the position of watching the store may not have been as scrupulously honest.
George estimated that he put up more than 40,000 travelers at the bookstore over the years. In exchange for a bed, George asked them to work an hour or two a day, write a short autobiography and read a book a day.
In a video made by Book TV C-Span 2 in 2002 (when George was 90 years old and Sylvia was 21), the interviewer asked him about Sylvia:
Is she the only child you have?
George: In a way she's the only one. In another way, I have thousands of children all over the world.
Interviewer: She came a little late for you, didn't she?
George: Not for me. I'm just beginning to live. When I'm 100 years old, come and interview me again, I'll tell you some more interesting stories.
His friends recalled that George also had the habit of slipping large denomination franc notes into books as bookmarks, then reshelving them and forgetting where he put them. Since George ran Shakespeare as a lending library, too, people would report finding 50,000 franc bills, which George would pocket, saying, "Oh, I wondered where that went." He was a great lover and patron of literature, and counted among his friends many of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, among them Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, James Baldwin, Lawrence Durrell, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg and Wiliam Burroughs.
I met George in the nineties when Richard and I began traveling to Paris together. In his mid-eighties, he was lean and raffishly bohemian, and had the aura of a Merlin. As Sylvia said about her father in the 2005 video, Portrait of a Bookstore as an Old Man, "For me, he's more of a very eccentric wizard."
There are many fine obituaries out there with all of the pertinent "facts," how George was given the mantle and bookstore name by Sylvia Beach, who began the store in November 1919 (and closed it in December 1941 after threats from the occupying Nazis), and who first published James Joyce's Ulysses; how George and his friend Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights in San Francisco began their "sister stores" in the early 1950's, etc.; but what moved me was the way his death so beautifully mirrored his life. Sylvia was quoted in the 2002 Book TV interview, "People ask me what is his secret. I think it's that he's surrounded by books, which is his passion. And also surrounded by young people, so it kind of keeps him alive. He's got a buzz for life and so he's--I find him quite inspiring that way."
George Whitman died as he lived, above the bookstore in his tiny apartment facing the Seine and Notre Dame, in a 17th Century building that had once housed the monks of Notre Dame. He died surrounded by books, with his daughter, friends and his dog and cat by his side.
We walked by Thursday to bring Sylvia Whitman a bouquet of roses, and found the store closed, and dozens of people with the same impulse, creating a shrine of flowers, candles, and notes that we all hoped would withstand the near-freezing Paris wind.
George will be buried at Pere-Lachaise, our favorite cemetery, where Balzac, Proust, Oscar Wilde and Apollinaire rest, so we will visit him there, and will continue to greet his spirit at least weekly at Shakespeare, the fiercely independent and magical bookstore where we buy our books.